There was once a young American college student whose love for his faith led him to devote two years of his life as an overseas missionary, embracing loneliness and relative poverty in his zeal to convert unbelievers. He’d even left behind his high school sweetheart, to whom he was faithfully and chastely devoted. He didn’t make many converts — his religion had seemed odd and vaguely threatening to that foreign people set in its ancient traditions — but when he returned he received his heart’s other desire, taking his sweetheart’s hand in matrimony. His faith (especially in that more conservative era) frowned on intermarriage, though, so after taking instruction his wife first converted from her native Episcopalianism. Theirs went on to be a long — and in the era of the Pill, unusually fruitful — union.
It sounds like an old-time Catholic’s story . . . but it’s not. It’s the story of Mitt Romney — a Mormon, but a Catholic conservative’s best choice for president.
With Romney’s victory in the Michigan primary, the GOP candidate field is once more level. Faced with more viable candidates this late in the season than anyone can seem to remember, conservative Catholic voters in upcoming primaries have a choice that goes beyond “hop on the frontrunner’s bandwagon” or “lodge a protest vote.” After my own reflection, I want to make a case that Mitt Romney should be that choice.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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A few qualifications are in order at the outset. First, I’m taking it as a premise that electability counts. I think Mitt Romney is the Catholic conservative’s best choice for president — not for sending a message to the media or GOP, laying the groundwork for future campaigns, or racking up a new high score on some Catholic blogger’s candidate compatibility quiz. Protest votes are noble, and I’ve made them myself, but right now I’m talking pragmatism, not perfection.
Second, Romney’s wealth and his religion do not count. Virtually all the candidates could buy or sell me many times over; even if I were looking for an authentic class warrior (I’m not, though many Catholics are), among the electable choices there just ain’t one. And Mormonism’s bizarre doctrines and infiltration of third-world Catholic cultures notwithstanding, we Catholics must remember that we’re voting for a president, not a National Elder. Besides, Mormonism may be a corrupted religion that fails the strict test of Chalcedon, but it’s a corruption of familiar American Christianity. Its adherents look to the same distant religious and moral foundations — if through a thick haze — that we do.
Finally, I am speaking as a political conservative to political conservatives. I don’t pretend to make a case to Catholics of a statist bent, to those who — whether or not they think their faith requires it — shade to the left on welfare policy, immigration, national defense, or taxation, or to those who seek solutions to the nation’s ills primarily in coercion by the political class rather than meritorious private enterprise. Their best choice is someone else.
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First, consider Romney’s personal qualities. Superficial though many of these may seem, it’s nearly as great a mistake to dismiss their importance as it is to overstate them. Romney is tall, with a statesmanlike bearing. Even off the cuff he speaks in long, complete sentences, with answers that have a beginning, middle, and end. Unlike some of his Republican rivals, he’s neither glib nor gruff; his temper is known to be long and measured. After eight years of George W. Bush, who never seems to get his brain more than a half-step ahead of his mouth, it would be a national relief to spend a term or two listening to Mitt (even if, for sheer aural pleasure, he’s still a notch below the deep-timbred resonance and rhetorical stylings of Barack Obama). Moreover, as a spokesman for conservative ideas and values (and likewise a locus of criticism from the left), he could be trusted to perform with competence, coherence, and patience.
Romney’s strongest critics from the right, of course — especially the social right — would counter that precisely what can’t be trusted is his belief in certain “conservative ideas and values.” It is undeniable (and thanks to opposition campaign researchers and YouTube, unavoidable) that even just a few years ago, Romney was making clear statements in favor of “a woman’s right to choose,” criticizing the Boy Scouts for banning homosexual leaders, and supporting civil union-like benefits for gay partners. Then, after an epiphany that allegedly occurred while he was studying embryonic stem cell research (in 2005 he would veto an ESCR funding bill, not long before John McCain reversed his own position and voted in favor of one), his social positions took a hard turn to the right. On the campaign trail today he speaks freely of overturning Roe v. Wade and passing the Federal Marriage Amendment. His website names the conspicuously worded goal of “promoting a culture of life.”
For this shift, detractors from both ends of the spectrum call him a phony and an opportunist. I find it dismaying, though, that in branding Romney unclean for not having been a lifetime pro-life purist, some social conservatives are joining the “flip-flopper” chorus that the liberal media have been incessantly chanting about him. What bothers the media is not that he changed his positions (though he only changed them once, technically making him not a flip-flopper but merely a “flipper”), but that his positions became more conservative. That’s why we’re still waiting for similar derision to be cast upon formerly pro-life Democrats who, to one extent or another, sacrificed conviction for upward mobility in the party of abortion — a list that includes Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Harry Reid, and Bob Casey Jr.
Liberals revile Romney for moving to the right. And instead of welcoming him, some conservatives knock him for not moving soon or far enough.
Some say that it’s because they doubt the authenticity of his “conversion,” and fear that once elected he’d rip off his mask to reveal the social-liberal beast beneath. But that fear is unfounded. Even if Romney were the most cynical of phonies, if it came to pass that a social-right coalition including pro-lifers, traditional-marriage preservers, crusaders for school choice and religion in the public square, abstinence-onlyites, and so on helped put him in office, it would make no political sense for him to alienate them. Politicians pay back their supporters — if only because they know where their bread is buttered.
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All right, some others might say. Maybe he won’t betray the causes of life and marriage. But his sketchy past means he won’t pursue them very hard either.
That objection overestimates the powers of the executive branch. We all know that abortion first has to be beaten (and same-sex marriage headed off) in the courts. Sure, a president can use his veto power and bully pulpit to some effect, but really, apart from the critical task of appointing justices — and on this point, Romney is saying all the right things — a president doesn’t have the power to effect major social change. And as a rule, that’s the way conservatives want it.
In sum, then, Catholics ought not to fret over Romney’s social-conservative credentials. If they’re genuine and heartfelt, we’ll have an articulate advocate for life and traditional morality. If they’re merely or mostly a product of political calculation, we can still expect the right statements, the right vetoes, and the right judges. Isn’t that what matters? Social conservatives need a president to execute social conservative policy, not to be a fellow traveler.
Of all the candidates still in the race, Mitt Romney is the one most likely to do that, and to hew to conservative ideas across the rest of the board, and to be electable. That’s why he’s the best choice for Catholic conservatives.